The only copy of The Challenge
In July of 2016, I was in that awkward place of wanting to start a new story, but having no new ideas. I cast about for an old idea I might be able to put down on paper – and all of a sudden, remembered a sci-fi story I wrote for my GCSE English coursework. I remembered it involved time-travelling aliens, a desert, and a pretty cool used future aesthetic.
Trouble was, on investigation it turned out I’d erased my copy together with all of my old schoolwork. Well, I’d got the idea in my head now. I figured I’d just try and do it again, from memory, and see where it took me.
End result: 120,000 words and counting YA science fiction novel. I didn’t mean to write a novel. I just wanted to start a new longish short story.
This isn’t even the first time. When I sit down intending to write a novel, it fizzles out after a few pages. Almost all my novels have come about after deciding to write a thing… you know, a thing, just something, no pressure. Just write a thing. Suddenly, the thing is 200,000 words long, and I don’t know how it happened.
My sci-fi novel is work-titled Settlement 359 (which I’ll almost certainly change). It’s a story about Cobey H, a 16-year-old human-alien hybrid living on a desert planet that used to be an oil colony owned by an outerspace superpower descended from the USA. There’s a conspiracy, and an interstellar war, and a lot of hybrids with superpowers, and around about act two it all goes a bit Slaughterhouse 5 (one the time travel kicks in).
And it’s pre-novel history is pretty interesting. I through this idea around a couple of times, before committing to it and turning it into something unrecognisable.
I remember I was dead set on writing sci-fi for my English Language coursework. Screw literature, I wanted to have fun and be honest about myself and what I write. I’d also just got done watching Firefly and wanted to write something with a similar vibe.
The first version of The Challenge was about some kids travelling to an abadoned space station and it was basically a haunted house story in space. Which now I look back on it, is actually a pretty fun idea, but it didn’t go anywhere. At some point I realised I had no actual plot, put it aside, and started over.
A space map
Same title (which might have been part of the assignment? I honestly don’t remember), same aesthetic, totally different story. The second version of The Challenge was about a girl called Callie who lives in a blended human-alien community. Callie has some alien genes, and shares their time travel powers. She spends the story trying to convince the alien priest to let her participate in their coming of age rite, which involves a select group of young people travelling back to the foundation of their society.
Like I said, I deleted my only digital copy, but while clearing out my childhood bedroom, I found a hard copy complete with notes in the margin from my teacher. It’s alright, considering. There’s a pretty glaring structural issue and the used future aesthetic I wanted so badly doesn’t even figure that highly, and the time travel doesn’t make a lick of sense – I remember being acutely aware of that last problem at the time. I’d kind of glad I didn’t get to re-read it before starting the novel. Might have put me off.
Visual development for the webcomic that didn’t happen
I think I meant to make it a longer story, but at some point I accepted that I was never going to write it, because I adopted the setting (at some point dubbed Marikesh) for another project I was writing, a romance story set in an outerspace monarchy. I wanted it to contain several planets, and grabbed a ready-made one. At one point it was going to be a webcomic, so I have a lot of drawings for it, but that never got off the ground. I never intended for Marikesh to really appear in the story, and it didn’t.
But the romance story did focus on the ramifications of being an interspecies hybrid, which is the central theme of the novel I ended up writing.
Settlement 359 has not been an easy ride. For some reason, I only recently realised that when writing a novel one doesn’t actually have to include all the minutiae of one’s protagonist’s life, so the early sections are, er, a bit padded.
Cobey H spends a lot of the novel stuck in a rut, and not even really trying to get out. She’s a difficult protagonist, one who dodges the call to adventure at every turn because she just doesn’t want any trouble, you know? When she finally goes, she quite literally goes kicking and screaming. Why did I write her that way? I honestly don’t know, but I think it’ll work. I hope it’ll work.
Right now, I’m in part 7, Endgame, which should involve the climax, which should lead into a happy ending. I’ll keep you posted.